Chenab Under Siege

Kesang Thakur and Manshi Asher

Himachal Pradesh, a North Indian Himalayan state, is on an uninterrupted quest to develop run-of-river hydropower projects. The projects are planned for five major river basins, with a cumulative target of close to 27,000 megawatt (MW). Perhaps the most heavily affected of these rivers is the Chenab, which comes into being at the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers in the Lahaul Valley. (It then flows through Kashmir, crossing over to Pakistan.) Over 60 hydropower projects are under various stages of planning, construction and commissioning in this river basin. Of these, 49 are planned in the state of Himachal.

Debris and boulders after the cloudburst in Miyar valley
Debris and boulders after the cloudburst in Miyar valley

Himachal is already experiencing the detrimental effects of hydropower development. Areas near hydro projects have seen increased deforestation, landslides, soil erosion, damage to apple orchards, farms and roads, cracks in houses, and disappearing springs and rivers. The damage is attributed to the heavy-duty construction and the use of the drill and blast tunneling method. Concerns and agitations are brewing from people's negative experiences of hydropower development. Across the state of Himachal (and the entire Himalayan region), local communities have sharply articulated the environmental, socio-economic and cultural drawbacks of hydropower. 

In August of last year, the Himdhara Collective team visited 10 project sites in Lahaul to document how valley residents perceive the proposed hydro-development.

Miyar Valley: Hollowing Fragile Mountains

The Miyar project, located in a picturesque valley of the same name, is perhaps in the most advanced stage of development. Agricultural land has already been acquired, and the Environment Clearance and Stage-1 Forest Clearance have been granted. The 120 MW project is being developed by Hindustan Power Projects Private Limited. This, along with the 80 MW Tinget, are the major projects planned on this stream.

Bhim Dasi from Shakoli village near the proposed dam site shared that in 2013 around 10 families had accepted compensation for land acquired. Content with the compensation offered, many are now repenting their decision.

Residents' perceptions of hydropower underwent a significant shift after 2013, when a cloudburst occurred in the valley. We crossed several glacial streams with boulders and debris on either side. Broken roads and dilapidated bridges were evidence that the intense rainfall had wreaked havoc, sweeping away houses and livestock.

Bhim Dasi recalled when the tunnel testing for Miyar hydroproject began two years back: “They would start testing at odd hours, like 2 in the morning and the windows would shudder. Once the tunnel construction begins underneath my house, I cannot imagine how it would be then,” she said.

Fields of Salpat village to be submerged by the Seli hydropower project
Fields of Salpat village to be submerged by the Seli hydropower project

Around 63.06 hectares of forest will be diverted for the project. People were uninformed about their right to grant consent under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Forest Rights Act 2006. But unlike here, people in the affected villages around the other two projects, Seli and Jispa, which are also in advanced stages of planning and clearance, seemed well mobilized.

Seli Project: A Threat to Thriving Agriculture

At Madgran, an affected village of the 400 MW Seli project, women told us how necessary the local river is to their livelihoods. “Our agriculture is entirely dependent on irrigation. The spring water is a source of drinking water not just for us but also for our animals. The Madgran stream is our main source of irrigation and close to 150 families are dependent on it. These streams and natural springs will be adversely impacted by Seli project's tunnel like in Kinnaur,” they said, referring to chashmas (springs) that are drying up in tunnel-affected areas. These springs are the main sources of drinking water and irrigation in Himachal.  

Villagers packing Cauliflower at Salpat village
Villagers packing Cauliflower at Salpat village

August is peak agriculture season, and fields were dotted with men and women plucking cauliflowers and peas, packing them into boxes and loading them onto jeeps. At Dorje's house in Salpat village of Tindi Panchayat (village council), we found cauliflowers piled up along the veranda, ready to be packed.

“About ten families in Salpat are in complete opposition. They will lose most of their agricultural land, around 13 acres,” Dorje says. Additionally, the project would acquire around five acres for the project colony at Salgran village. For the Seli hydroproject, land will be acquired permanently from 94 families. The total land requirement for the project is estimated at 292.97 ha, which includes 276.19 ha of forest land. According to several project reports, a total of 58,595 trees will be diverted, but locals claim the number is closer to one hundred thousand. The tunnel for Seli would run underneath Kurched village (Tindi Panchayat) located above Tindi. This is a seismically active, avalanche- and landslide-prone area.

One of the first projects allotted in Lahaul Valley, the 144 MW Gondhla hydroproject by Moser Baer, was in Tholang village. Here people said, “The Managing Director and contractors tried convincing us for a no objection certificate or NOC for the project thrice, but in vain.” The project was later dropped. In two other villages, Rashil and Jobrang, where the 130 MW Rashil project is proposed, the local village councils passed resolutions against the project. Vulnerability to avalanches and floods was voiced as a major concern.

Dissenting Voices:  Hydropower Opposition in the Bhaga valley

Dam site for Jispa hydropower project
Dam site for Jispa hydropower project

The 300 MW Jispa Dam is coming up along the Leh-Manali highway, on river Bhaga. The Jispa Dam by HPPCL is a 200-meter high rock fill dam at an altitude of 3,245 meters. It was envisaged primarily as a water storage scheme to regulate the flow of the river downstream. In August 2008 the Central Government declared it a "National Water Resource" project. Twelve villages will be completely or partially submerged by the project, displacing more than 250 families. Around 10 villages will be impacted as water sources dry up due to the construction of an 18 km-long headrace tunnel. Local environment groups closely monitor decisions taken on the Jispa project. The Pradhan (village head) of Darcha Panchayat shared that a local delegation had once again appraised the Tribal Minister and officials at the Power department in March 2014.

Late last year, the valley residents protested at a stakeholder consultation conducted by the Department Of Energy for Chenab's Cumulative Environment Impact Assessment (CEIA) at Killar, Keylong and Pangi regions of Lahaul-Spiti and Chamba. Local residents feel the government agencies are not conducting the studies seriously. A former Chief Minister termed the Ministry of Environment decision to recommend Chenab's CEIA as "unilateral and contrary to the state's interest," affirming the state's position that environmental concerns vis-a-vis hydropower are not a priority. 

Seeing the Future

The fate of hydroprojects in the Lahaul Valley depends on three important developments. The first is the Rohtang Tunnel. This valley remains relatively untouched by hydropower because of its difficult topography and inaccessibility round the year. The Rohtang Pass, perched at 3978 metres above sea level connects Lahaul to other regions, but it remains closed for six to seven months eac year. A few residents get locked in for the remaining months and others move to Kullu or Manali, nearby towns, after completing their agricultural activities. Nevertheless, in the pipeline is an 8.8 km Rohtang Tunnel. Called a "tunnel of good hope," it promises unhindered round-the-year access to Lahaul. This is a dream project for the Ministry of Defense, which claims it will bring about economic prosperity by integrating Lahaul's rural economy with the local and global market. Inaccessibility has been a factor in determining the high cost of power production, and power producers have been eagerly awaiting the tunnel's completion.

The second important factor is local sentiment. The state has been incompetent in dealing with the complexity of fallouts unleashed by the cascade of hydroprojects in the major river basins of Himachal. It's apparent that getting consent or a "No Objection Certificate" from local people is going to be far from easy. It will depend on how far state officials and project proponents are prepared to go in order to gain local support, or suppress local voices.

Lastly, the discourse on hydropower in the Himalayas, especially given the frequency of disasters in this region (the Nepal earthquake; Uttarakhand, Himachal, and Kashmir floods) is a crucial factor. The vulnerability and fragility of the Himalayas is begging urgent attention. When and whether this will be given due concern depends on how honestly and democratically the state is ready to re-assess its development model and realign its developmental objectives in favor of the Himalayan ecology – and its people.

Kesang and Manshi are members of the Himdhara, Environment Research and Action Collective, Himachal Pradesh.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015